Why the improved Bengals are(n't) ready to challenge the Ravens for AFC North superiority

When the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m. ET, CBS) on Sunday, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow headline a matchup of the top two teams in the AFC North. But the battle for first place will be waged by teams competing on different levels in recent years.

Since Zac Taylor became coach of the Bengals in 2019, Baltimore has outscored Cincinnati 137-36. That’s a 101-point differential — a 25.2-point average margin of victory for the Ravens — over the past four games.

But the Ravens (5-1) aren’t thinking about the past when they face a Bengals (4-2) team that has already matched last season's win total.

"The whole team is one of the best teams in the National Football League right now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There’s no question about it -- just watch them play. They’ve done a great job across the board. In terms of how they’re playing this year, that’s all we look at. There is no comparison to anything else.”

Sunday’s meeting features:

  • The top two passers in the AFC North. Jackson ranks No. 8 in the NFL with 1,686 passing yards and Burrow 10th with 1,540.

  • The best scoring offenses in the division. The Ravens are seventh in the league at 28.3 points per game and the Bengals 11th at 24.7 points.

  • The stingiest defenses in the division. Cincinnati is fifth in the NFL with 18.5 points per game allowed and Baltimore seventh with 20.5 points.

"We’ve got our hands full,” Harbaugh said. “Whoever wins is going to be leading the division kind of at the midway point of the season. So, we understand that."

Are the Bengals ready to take the next step and knock off the team with the best record in the AFC? Or will Jackson and Co. keep rolling and notch their sixth straight win? ESPN’s Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Ben Baby break it down.

Hensley: Ben, we’ve seen the Ravens dominate the Bengals in 2019 and 2020. Do you feel Sunday’s game will unfold differently?

Baby: It could. This is the Bengals’ best team in Taylor’s three seasons -- and it’s not even close. Cincinnati has spent the last two drafts and offseasons committing to the necessary steps to a quick rebuild. The Bengals have drafted key skill players, including Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, and added big pieces in free agency such as defensive tackle D.J. Reader and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.

The Bengals (4-2) have done the bulk of their damage against some inferior opponents, to be sure. But Cincinnati was one of those teams as recently as last season.

The Bengals have bulked up their defense to be much better against the run -- think Jackson’s highlight TD in 2019 in which he put a couple guys in the spin cycle. And that could make this weekend’s game a closer affair.

With the Bengals showing marked improvement, can Ravens-Bengals be the top rivalry in the AFC North?

Hensley: It would surprise people if Ravens-Bengals turned into the new Ravens-Steelers. The expectation was for the Cleveland Browns to be Baltimore’s main competition for the division title. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and the Ravens and the Bengals clearly have the best quarterbacks in the division. As long as the Bengals can build a supporting cast around Burrow like the Ravens have done with Jackson, these teams could be battling for the top spot for the next decade.

Even though these Ravens-Bengals games haven’t been close, they have had some memorable moments. There was the Jackson spin move in 2019. There was also the Bengals kicking a late field goal in Baltimore last season to avoid a shutout, which drew the ire of Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. All this series needs is to have something meaningful on the line, which can start Sunday.

Ben, the Ravens were a .500 team before Jackson became the starter midway through the 2018 season. He’s led them to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. How has Burrow changed the attitude and culture in Cincinnati?

Baby: Burrow has transformed everything about Cincinnati and been the focal point of the rebuilding process. Everything has seemingly been geared around the 2020 top overall draft pick.

Burrow’s aggressiveness has been mirrored by the coaching staff, which isn’t afraid to rely on analytics and take risks in unorthodox situations. Cincinnati has also built its offense around Burrow, which produced significant ripple effects.

After Burrow suffered his season-ending knee injury in 2020, the Bengals made some modest but beneficial upgrades to the offensive line. More importantly, they drafted Chase, Burrow’s former LSU teammate. That synergy has produced some big plays as Burrow has displayed trust in Chase that feels unique.

What makes this Bengals-Ravens game fascinating is that Cincinnati appears to be on the verge of joining Baltimore as one of the top teams in a competitive AFC North. But which franchise is better situated for success moving forward? Jamison, I have a hunch as to what your answer is -- and it isn’t wrong.

Hensley: It’s hard to bet against a team with Jackson, who is 35-8 as a starter. Even with 16 players on injured reserve, the Ravens matched their best start in franchise history. Baltimore has a solid foundation for the future, signing cornerback Marlon Humphrey and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley to extensions. The Ravens also continually rank among the best in the draft under general manager Eric DeCosta.

But the challenge comes when Jackson is no longer on his rookie contract. The Ravens won one playoff game after making Joe Flacco one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. The difficulty is huge quarterback contracts take up a big chunk of the salary cap. The difference with Jackson is you don’t need to surround him with big-name free agents to be a championship contender. Jackson elevates the talent around him because he’s so much of a focus of the defense. Jackson puts the “V” in MVP. The Ravens have also been bracing for Jackson’s expensive extension by accruing draft picks. Baltimore has 10 selections in the 2022 draft.

Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals and has done a lot of damage against that Cincinnati defense. If the Bengals want to make this a rivalry, they are going to need to find some answers for him. How do you think the Bengals will try to slow down Jackson?

Baby: There are a couple of options -- use the offense to keep Baltimore off the field or find a way to plug the middle of the field and keep Jackson contained. It’s probably going to take a combination of both to slow Jackson down, and even that is asking a lot. Right now, he’s playing like an MVP candidate.

And that’s why, if we have to pick which franchise is better equipped to rule the AFC North moving forward, it has to be Baltimore. Burrow could continue to develop into a very good, if not great, quarterback. But Jackson is playing at that level and somehow keeps getting better.

The other, non-QB factor also goes back to why the Bengals drafted Burrow. They weren’t just looking for a long-term quarterback. Cincinnati needed a franchise facelift. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in more than 30 years, and outside of the strong run between 2011 and 2015, have struggled to reach the postseason.

Cincinnati has so much to prove. The Bengals need to show they can continue to adapt and have the ability to truly build a franchise capable of doing what Baltimore and Pittsburgh have accomplished over the last few decades.

That’s what makes this game and this season so important. Cincinnati finally has the team to contend for a division title and be a good franchise moving forward. How the Bengals look against Baltimore will show us what the battle for the AFC North might look like in the coming years.

Jamison, how do you see Sunday playing out?

Hensley: It’s difficult to predict the Bengals will slow down Jackson until they actually do it. Jackson has beaten Cincinnati with his arm, throwing eight touchdown passes in five games. He has beaten the Bengals with his legs, rushing for 436 yards.

The Ravens defense has had the Bengals’ number as well. Baltimore has gone 10 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown to Cincinnati. The Bengals managed two field goals in two games against the Ravens last year. The Ravens strengthen their grip on first place in the division with a 34-24 win.

Ben, what’s your prediction for this one?

Baby: This will be Burrow’s second game against Martindale, who Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan praised earlier in the week while wondering how Wink isn’t a head coach given the success of that defense.

This game will be all about Burrow vs. Wink. The Ravens are surrendering 82.0 rushing yards per game, the third-lowest total in the NFL. Teams have resorted to passing the ball in order to beat Baltimore.

Interestingly enough, the Bengals’ defense is actually statistically better than Baltimore’s defense. However, this will be the biggest test for Cincinnati on both sides of the ball. And Baltimore gets the nod for me. Ravens 24, Bengals 13.